Ancient Civilizations: The Israelites

Contributor: Suzanne Riordan. Lesson ID: 13076

An ancient people settled a land, left, returned, established a kingdom, saw it destroyed, rebuilt it, saw it destroyed again, and were scattered around the globe. How could their culture still exist?


World, World

learning style
personality style
Lion, Otter
Grade Level
Middle School (6-8)
Lesson Type
Dig Deeper

Lesson Plan - Get It!

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Do you attend a synagogue or celebrate Passover or know someone who does? What you might not know is that these practices are part of a culture with ancient roots. In this lesson, you will learn what the ancient Israelites did that no civilization before them had ever done and how it could be the key to the survival of their people and culture until the present day.

The ancient Israelites were the first believers in one, all-powerful God; all the other ancient civilizations worshiped many gods.

Ancient Israel started with one man, named Abraham. He left his home in the city of Ur, in Mesopotamia, around 1800 BC. The Bible says that Abraham heard God calling him to leave his home and settle in the land of Canaan.

map of Canaan

Image by Lea, Philip, via Wikimedia Commons, is licensed under the CC BY 2.0 license.

Abraham's family eventually grew into a large tribe. They were very different from the other tribes of people around them. Besides worshiping only one God, they did not eat pork or use human beings as sacrifices to their God, as other Canaanites did. The Hebrew culture eventually spread from the eastern hill country where they first settled to the west coast and throughout the land. But there was always conflict between the believers in the one God (also called the Hebrews or the Jewish people) and those who wanted to continue to worship their old gods.

A great famine drove the Hebrews to Egypt to find food, and they ended up staying there for many years. They became slaves to the Egyptians but were able to break free around 1300 BC and return to Canaan, led by a great leader named Moses.

The Bible tells us that the Israelites also had to agree to follow certain laws that God gave them. These laws were called the Ten Commandments, and they were very different from the law codes of other civilizations of the time. They were not handed down from rulers to keep the lower classes in order but were rules that applied to all people. Also, they dealt with a person's relationship to God as well as to his neighbor.

The Israelites had to fight many battles against the people who had settled in Canaan while they were gone. Another great military leader named Joshua led them in these battles, and by 1100 BC they had regained control of the land.

They divided the land among their tribes. The tribes were named after the 12 sons of Jacob, who was the grandson of Abraham. (Jacob was also called "Israel," so that's where the name comes from.)

12 tribes of Israel map

Image by Janz and translated by Kordas, via Wikimedia Commons, is licensed under the CC BY-SA 3.0 license.

At this time, they didn't have a king but relied on leaders they called "judges" to establish order and keep peace among the people. However, things were not always peaceful for the ancient Israelites because they were surrounded by other peoples who often attacked them, especially a tribe called the Philistines. These people came from the Greek island of Crete. They had iron weapons while the Hebrews only had bronze, so it was not easy to fight them off. (Iron is stronger than bronze.)

Because of these problems, the Israelites decided they needed to have one king to keep them united and lead them against their enemies. The first king was named Saul. He was not a great leader. He became jealous of a young man named David, who was a strong military leader that had won many battles.

David became the second king of Israel. He finally fought off the Philistines and built Jerusalem into a strong city, making it his capital.

The third king was David's son, Solomon. He built a magnificent temple, palaces, and forts, and even started a navy. But Solomon angered the people by imposing heavy taxes and making them work on all his building projects!

When Solomon died, the people hoped his son, Rehoboam, would lessen the taxes and forced labor, but he said he would increase them! Some of the people revolted and started their own kingdom. So, Israel was split into two kingdoms: Israel in the north, and Judah in the south.

map of the Kingdoms of Israel and Judah

Image by FinnWikiNo, via Wikimedia Commons, is licensed under the CC BY-SA 3.0 license.

The kingdom of Israel was attacked by a people called the Assyrians in 722 BC and was conquered. The kingdom of Judah lasted longer, but it was captured by the Babylonians in 586 BC. The Babylonians not only conquered the country, they destroyed the temple and took the people back to Babylon as captives.

When the Persian kingdom overthrew the Babylonians, the Israelites were allowed to return to their country. They rebuilt the temple and lived in peace for a while. However, they were eventually invaded by Alexander the Great and later by the Romans; the second temple was destroyed as well.

Despite being overtaken and scattered, the Jewish people were never completely defeated. Their language, culture, and religion have survived to this day!

Now, head over to the Got It? section, where you'll label your own map of ancient Israel and take a quiz on some of its important people!

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